“As students were coming out of classrooms, [recruiters] would be by the door waiting for them."
Danielle Corcione - Teen Vogue
Since its inception, the United States military has recruited teenagers to enlist. During the Revolutionary War, when the military was formally established, young men were encouraged to fight for their country voluntarily. During the Civil War, conscription — essentially mandatory military enrollment for men of a certain age — was implemented, initially targeting men age 21 to 30. The draft was later expanded to include men as young as 18, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, and continued over centuries as a way to maintain a base of military servicepeople. In a statement to Teen Vogue, Lisa M. Ferguson, media relations chief for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, said, “The Army seeks qualified individuals 17 [to] 34 years old.”
Since the draft ended in 1973, the military has relied on an all-volunteer service and has targeted young people, using strategies that include placing recruiters in schools. This is allowed because the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, requires military recruiters be granted the same access in schools as college recruiters.
The military markets to teenagers, particularly those in poorer school districts, because the armed services need a large population, and the sooner young people join, the more likely they are to stay and build a career. (According to the government, “184,000 personnel must be recruited into the Armed Forces each year to replace those who complete their commitment or retire.”) Modern-day recruiters sell the idea of an experience that often resonates more with poorer students because, for many, service with an honorable discharge can mean a free ride to college, or potentially a path to citizenship. (Only the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Dept. can grant citizenship, but the military can only accelerate the process. If a person doesn't qualify for citizenship, they would still have to complete their service years in the military.)
The majority of today’s teenagers, however, aren’t interested in joining the military: According to a 2017 poll conducted by the Department of Defense, only 14% of respondents age 16 to 24 said it was likely they’d serve in the military in the next few years.
As enrollment drops, recruiters are finding new ways to market the military favorably to teenagers. For example, the Army recently began recruiting through video game tournaments in hopes of connecting with young people, according to Stars and Stripes. This strategy was announced after the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal for the first time in 13 years — during which time the Iraq War was underway — according to The New York Times.
Kate Connell, a coordinator for Truth in Recruitment, tells Teen Vogue that for an October visit to California’s Santa Maria High School, the Army brought a military truck equipped with a virtual reality helicopter game. She said a recruiter was on site to input students’ personal information into an iPad, “including their citizenship status, their GPA, what grade, their email.” (When asked whether the Army asks potential recruits about their citizenship, an Army spokesperson provided a list of questions the Army does ask its recruits; citizenship was not on the list.) The same recruiter, Connell adds, asked students about their career interests and mentioned college scholarships that the military provides to some enlistees.
“[Students are] participating in something that’s about the military, that glamorizes the military, [that] makes it sort of a game,” Connell says. She believes that the military’s collection of students’ personal information is the “main purpose” of their campus visits: to get leads. These recruiters also rely on programs for teenagers, such as the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) and U.S. Army Partnership for Youth Success.
The JROTC is a federally sponsored program that operates in public and private high schools, described by the government as “character development and citizenship programs” where retired servicepeople offer information and skill training to student participants, which can lead to scholarships for its participants. Connell says programs like JROTC and the Future Soldiers program (formerly the Delayed Entry program) make the military attractive to poor students, whose college options may otherwise be limited.
For kids who join the military, there's often a signing bonus: an enlistee can accrue up to $6,000 through the Army's Future Soldiers program, Connell says. “You don’t collect it, luckily, until you go to boot camp, but it’s that kind of incentive that, for someone who is low income, makes [the military] look like a path out of poverty.”
The term “poverty draft” came about in the early 1980s to describe “the belief that the enlisted ranks of the military were made up of young people with limited economic opportunities,” Sojourners reports. Rocio Cordova, program coordinator for the Project on Youth and Non-military Opportunities, describes this phenomenon as a “draft-like system that pushes nonprivileged people into enlisting because they lack access to jobs, income, and educational alternatives in their communities.”
This persists today, with many of those interested in the military saying they are motivated by the chance to attend college. A 2017 Department of Defense poll of young people shows 49% of survey respondents indicated that if they were to join the military, one reason for doing so would be to pay for future education.
Jesus Palafox, a regional administrative associate at the American Friends Service Committee, attended one of the most diverse high schools on the South Side of Chicago during the height of the Iraq War. The school had a JROTC program and was located a block away from military recruiting stations, he says.
“As students were coming out of classrooms, [recruiters] would be by the door waiting for them,” he tells Teen Vogue. “A lot of the times, they already had someone they were going to talk to. One of the things JROTC has served as is a liaison between recruiters and the instructors, so recruiters would ask instructors who was a good candidate.”
Citizenship is another reason marginalized youth may turn to the military. Palafox cites the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act — the first of many versions introduced in 2001 but never passed — as an effort supported by the military, which the Department of Defense included it in its 2010-2012 strategic plan. According to the National Immigration Law Center, numerous versions of this legislation would have given undocumented immigrants who immigrated as children a path to citizenship if they were to attend college or serve in the military.
Many currently serving in the military will eventually have the opportunity to receive financial benefits for college after their service, as many do not graduate college prior to enlisting. A 2017 military demographics report indicates that nearly 66.4% of the total force has earned a high school diploma, GED, or some college as their highest form of education. Although the Department of Defense doesn’t collect information about recruits’ household or family income, it does measure “neighborhood affluence” to determine “how well-off recruits’ neighborhoods were,” which is the closest measure, aside from education level, available on recruits’ class data, according to the fiscal year 2017 Population Representation in the Military Services report. The report indicates that nearly 20% of military members come from neighborhoods with median household incomes of $40,115 or less. (In 2017, the median U.S. household income was $60,336, reports the United States Census Bureau.)
When the draft was active, wealthier teenagers sometimes had the advantage of deferment, too. According to the Selective Service System, some of the most common reasons for draft deferment were college enrollment, being a minister, or an elected official. Even with the mandatory draft abolished, the Selective Service System is still in place and requires everyone who was male-assigned at birth to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. The DOJ hasn’t prosecuted anyone since 1986, but failure to report could result in up to five years in prison and/or up to $250,000 in fines. If the draft were to be reinstated, students with access to higher education could still be able to defer for similar reasons, while many poorer students would not be.
“[Privileged people] have sufficient resources to meet their needs,” stresses Cordova. “They don't require joining the military to travel or learn a profession. They have connections to help them get into jobs that pay well and provide benefits. They don't need the military's medical insurance coverage that sometimes motivates low-income people to enlist.” During the Civil War, it was common for wealthy men to hire substitutes to take their place in the draft, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
It’s important to note that the military isn’t the only option for poor students who want to continue their education. For instance, Palafox, through his job, helps teens fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, an application for federal financial aid for higher education. This is why Palafox urges young people, especially poor students, “to consider all their options before signing a military contract and to really get informed of what they are getting into.”